Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce

Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce

by John Chirban


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Based on research from more than 10,000 surveys from children and parents of divorce, Collateral Damage presents parents with an overview of the negative impact that divorce has on their children and offers ways to better serve their needs at this critical time.

Approximately fifty percent of marriages in the United State fail. Add to that the increasing number of couples who never marry, have children together, and later go their separate ways. In all of these scenarios, children suffer greatly—often in silence, as parents do not know how to effectively guide their kids. When the sorrow and emotional issues of children are not addressed, the cycle of divorce is likely to continue for them and in generations that follow. In addition, while children may appear to be resilient and adjusting, without proper support children of divorce are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, mental and physical illness, and suicide. How can parents manage their own hurt, shock, anger, and despair so that they can provide their children with what they need?

While Collateral Damage does not advocate divorce, it does sound a wakeup call for parents. It identifies the landmines inherent in the dangerous terrain of divorce and equips them to help their children not to feel abandoned or unheard. Topics covered include:

  • Building the family—not losing it
  • Tuning into your kids
  • Stabilizing childhood
  • Maintaining parent/child roles
  • Avoiding the parenting handoff
  • Keeping kids out of the war zone
  • Instilling trust
  • Keeping open lines of communication
  • Attuning to guiding, spiritual resources

The unfortunate failure of a marriage does not mean the end of the family. Providing a stable, supportive, healthy relationship with your child demonstrates what a loving relationship looks like, better preparing them for intimate relationships and marriage as an adult.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718079888
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 01/17/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dr. John T. Chirban has taught classes about relationships, sexuality, and spirituality at his alma mater, Harvard Medical School, for more than thirty years. In addition to teaching at Hellenic College and Holy Cross, he has served also as professor of psychology and chairman of the Program on Human Development for more than thirty years. He is in high demand as an international lecturer on family and spirituality speaking frequently before professional organizations and national societies, and as a guest consultant for magazines, newspapers, and radio shows. Since its inception, he has served on the Advisory Board for the Dr. Phil Show, where he is a frequent guest. He has also served as director of Cambridge Counseling Associates for more than thirty years, serves as a Guardian Ad Litem, in Massachusetts, where he has specializes in helping families through divorce.

Dr. Chirban lives with his children in Carlisle, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Collateral Damage

Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce

By John T. Chirban

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2017 John T. Chirban, PhD, ThD
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-8168-3



I came to understand that a parent's pain is alleviated when they choose to divorce and get away from each other. But I also discovered that their pain is inadvertently placed onto their child and the child becomes the recipient of two people's pain. No matter how much counseling the child receives or how well the parents handle the process, their pain is transferred to their child. It is ultimately the child that has to pay for the parents' divorce.

— Parent (married eighteen years)

Parental Oversight 1

During the throes of divorce, you may tune out your children, leaving them alone to manage the separation of the family. When you are unaware of your children's needs, you may not engage in effective communication with them, missing an invaluable and critical opportunity to bond as they try to sort through their thoughts and feelings about the shake-up of divorce.

I felt horrible. No one told me. I just knew because of the fights. When my father eventually left, I knew that he would never come back to me. I felt worthless and lonely, primarily because my mother had some issues and should not have been left alone with me and my two sisters. I felt neglected by my father.

Twenty-six-year-old (age six at the time of divorce)

It was very awkward. They brought us into the kitchen, sat us down, and they said they were separating. Who did we want to live with? We were fourteen and twelve. It was like, "Huh? What do you mean who do we want to live with?" Ridiculous.

— Fifty-one-year-old (age fourteen at the time of divorce)

[I was] totally devastated. They were always affectionate, and repeatedly assured my sister and I that we would never have to worry about them divorcing. Then they did! I felt so insecure and unsafe. I thought I had caused the divorce because I didn't make good grades and my sister and I argued sometimes. I felt abandoned because both my parents were more concerned with their personal grief than me or my sister.

Thirty-six-year-old (age eleven at the time of divorce)

Let's try to understand what's going on inside the hearts and minds of our children by hearing how a young woman struggled with her parents' divorce throughout her life, though she was only an infant when her parents divorced.

Maya's Story (Part 1)

My parents had no idea how much their divorce affected me. I struggled with my ability to share my feelings and thoughts about what it means to have a healthy and open dialogue and relationship with them until I told them a couple years ago how I was feeling. I was in my early twenties.

To be fair, I struggled to understand the dynamic between my mother and father — how difficult the decision must have been to divorce and how it affected their own emotional well-being. I was only a baby when the divorce took place; and as I grew older, I became more aware.

I was used to dividing my weekends between my primary household, which was my mom's place, and spending time with my dad at his duplex, along with my grandparents. In hindsight, I was able to spend a significant amount of time with my grandparents, who were consistently there for my brother and me, especially when my father was not. In addition, my parents were never on good terms. Often my brother and I witnessed our parents bickering about each other in front of us; to say it was heart-wrenching is an understatement. It became worse when my father was diagnosed with severe depression.

When I attempted to talk about the divorce and my feelings, my mother shut down and all order in my life turned to chaos. Her responses echoed bitterness, resentment, and remorse as she always finished each brief exchange of dialogue with, "I'm sorry. I wish you had a better father." All of this is to say, the consequences of divorce continued well after it was finalized. Addressing these areas of concern is critical. There is strength in letting one's guard down to have a genuine conversation between parent and child concerning what's next, and in being present, not caught up in the mental cloud of divorce chaos.

Twenty-five-year-old (age six months at the time of divorce)

We may be surprised by the insidious damage of divorce when it occurs before a child has learned to walk, or when we perceive our divorce as amicable. In the face of the family's breakdown, were Maya's parents effectively attuned to her needs? What do you think might have calmed her anguish? Did they approach the divorce in her "best interest"?

As you read this chapter, think about why children are so deeply affected by their parents' divorce. What can you do to meet your children's needs and avoid permanent scarring? Let's begin by taking a closer look at the potentially damaging side effects children of divorce face.

Children's Needs and the Impact of Divorce

Human beings are wired for attachment and the experience of love. We instinctively smile at newborns because they are magnets of affection — our smiles are a response to both their needs and our innate design for human contact. When children are isolated or deprived of their instinctive desire to connect, to relate, and to love, they implode. This implosion leads to a longing for what is not provided in the home: love and nurturance. In response to deprivation of needed contact, children often act out in isolation and search for love elsewhere. They require substantive, attentive nurturing to thrive. The supportive love of parents fuels the achievement of children's potential. By recognizing the need to relate effectively to others, to love and be loved, we impart the capacity for healthy intimacy and generosity in infants, setting the tone for how they continue to develop.

Through our actions, we further impart the ability to confront expected and unexpected challenges with resilience and understanding. Divorce can rob children of their natural developmental process and their ability to access the confidence they were given from the most important people in their lives: their parents. Their role models may be removed or preoccupied. This, we know, has lasting effects. Children who experience early traumatic stress, such as separation from a primary caregiver, are prone to long-term effects of mental and cognitive dysfunction in adulthood.

Your child's ability to overcome the potential negative impact of your divorce may be pre-wired from birth — based on the strengths and weaknesses of his or her genetic makeup and personality, as well as his or her provided support system. Nonetheless, child psychologists have convincingly explained that kids require attentive nurturing throughout their growth if they are to master unique challenges at each stage of their development, including adulthood. As the Divorce Study confirms, when parents divorce — even during their child's adulthood — loss of familial security causes deep emotional wounds.

Research reveals disturbing information about the plight for children of divorce: when the family structure breaks, the children turn elsewhere, often to peers and the media, and may embrace deviancy and recklessness. They may act out for needed attention and become primary targets for street gangs, drug dealers, and sexual abuse. Children of divorce are more likely to be involved in crime and die at younger ages than children from intact homes, and they are also more prone to suicide. When they get older, children of divorce are more likely to go through a divorce themselves and to bear children out of wedlock. Adults with divorced parents are 38 percent more likely to have a divorce themselves than adults raised in intact families.

In college, I had several friends whose parents divorced once they were out of the house. It was equally as hurtful. [My friends] started drinking and sleeping around. It was painful to watch. As their friend, I watched it; and their parents conveniently lived on in delusion that because the kid was eighteen and at college that this would somehow magically not hurt them. [They were] insensitive and selfish.

Thirty-nine-year-old (age fourteen at the time of divorce)

Although the struggles of children of divorce have been well documented, the combined research from independent studies on divorce report conflicting outcomes for children — and cite both positive and negative results. Some studies claim that because divorce is so commonplace in our society, it is not possible to isolate it as the sole cause of poor behavior in children of divorce. Other studies highlight that there are advantages and even secondary gains for children of divorce, such as developing stronger resilience and having options for living situations that they would not otherwise have had.

Such encouraging findings were not confirmed by the results of the Divorce Study and appear counterintuitive given the distress children reported concerning their experiences. While it is important to recognize that positive aspects of divorce may occur when a child or parent is exposed to violence and abuse, the predominant trend reported in the Divorce Study makes clear that adversity resulting from the divorce is widespread and prevalent. The surveys from the Divorce Study also offer insight into how to respond to hurtful aspects of this agonizing event. (This subject is addressed in chapters 5 and 6.)

In my clinical practice, I've observed — and a broad range of research supports — that children of divorce experience many more negative consequences in life than children from intact families. As stated in the introduction, the deficits that children of divorce experience include

• poorer health

• emotional problems

• trouble with problem-solving

• lower academic performance

• increased danger of dropping out of school

• difficulties maintaining relationships and retaining future employment

Despite the growing norm of single-parent homes, the cycle continues to drain the psychological well-being of children and perpetuates their lower academic achievement and the potential for difficult life outcomes. I'd be remiss not to report that female children of divorce generally experience more negative long-term repercussions than those of non-divorced families.

The Divorce Study revealed that 76 percent of children stated that the divorce "affected their life negatively." It doesn't have to be that way for your children. If you picked up this book, you probably want to know what occurs for children during divorce and what you can do to help your kids avoid these negative consequences. Despite the fact that studies generally confirm statistics regarding devastating scenarios, children of divorce are not condemned to a future life of failure, deviance, or death. The good news is that the impact of divorce for your children is within your control.

How you approach your children during your divorce is what most significantly affects the future of their lives. How you love them, nurture them, and secure the structure of the home, while maintaining authority before, during, and after divorce, greatly affects the success of your child's adaptation following the divorce.

The quality of your parenting is the single most important factor for saving your child from becoming a statistic of collateral damage stemming from divorce. Rather than looking at the impact of divorce as inevitable and fixed, look at the root of this problem and recognize the negative feelings and thoughts your children may be wrestling with. Left unaddressed, these forces can build up over the course of their lifetimes. Your children's sense of loss of love greatly factors into their stability.

Now consider Maya, whose story opened this chapter. Her parents divorced when she was six months old. Do you see how her home life affected her emotionally? Were her parents attuned to the impact that their divorce had on her? Can you identify ways they responded that intensified her distress? What may have occurred to minimize her despair?

Your Action Message to Your Child

In another publication, I described how parents can effectively communicate messages of genuine love to their children:

I see you. You are important and invaluable, and you know it.

I love you and act in ways that show it.

I recognize you and take time to give you the attention you deserve, and we celebrate it.

I guide you to discover your True Self that shapes your identity, dignity, and direction and embrace it.

Through the messages of your active love, you, as a parent, impart the tools your children need so they develop soundly.

In the midst of divorce, communicating this is no small order. Both you and your partner are disengaged from each other — you are no longer in sync, and you can no longer depend on each other. You both carry the weight of numerous stressors in multiple areas of your lives. You are not in optimal control. You do not have the benefit of time and patience. Plus, you are frequently fatigued during the roller coaster of the divorce process. You feel depleted.

My daughter was two and a half years old when we divorced; and now she's twenty-seven. As she grew up, she always had anxieties and fears that men would never stay — that they would always leave her. When she had a boyfriend at age sixteen, she felt she "needed" that guy and was terrified he'd leave. When they broke up, she was a basket case. ... It took me years of talking to her, reinforcing her mind with the thoughts that she needs to be happy with herself — and never dependent on any man — until she learned to be strong and independent She is now twenty-seven. And I can say that through patience and support from myself (her mom), she is a strong, happy, self-supporting, positive person who now "wants" a man but does not "need" a man. I'm so proud of her.

Parent (married nine years)

It is best for children if both parents act collaboratively and constructively in managing their divorce, yet this is not always possible. Even when divorce is not contentious, it makes great demands on both parties. Nonetheless, if only one parent recognizes and responds to his or her children's needs through active parenting, that parent can secure a solid pathway for the development of healthy children. In the following pages, you will read several accounts of children who suffered considerably because of the actions and unintended injuries their parents caused during divorce. By attuning yourself to your children's needs, you can rescue them from the overbearing weight of carrying this adult situation.

Eighteen years of a dysfunctional marriage is a long time. I also felt validated to be told what I always knew: that there was no love between them for one another. But I never said this. It seems that now as an adult, I am affected by their past actions. Now I have feelings and questions that lay on my heart. As a result, I have troubles with my boyfriend, and our own common-law relationship is suffering.

Twenty-eight-year-old (age seventeen at the time of divorce)

I think the fact that they avoided speaking ill of one another, for the most part, was extremely helpful. Whatever grudges they might have had, they never subjected us to them. It made it easier to see them as people. Neither of them ever played a victim role either, so it made it easier for us to live our lives as adults who had to be responsible for the good and bad that we had garnered.

Forty-three-year-old (age three at the time of divorce)

Though unpleasant, divorce is sometimes a wise choice when it improves circumstances, such as parental struggles, and protects family members — especially from abusive situations. It is important to recognize that although some parents may not formally divorce, they may essentially be living as if divorced because their marriages lack love and exhibit discord. Children within these intact but practically split homes often suffer some of the same problematic repercussions of children of divorce. The interpersonal dynamics between these family members express signs of divorced parents, such as fighting, negativity, and distress — all of which generate similar destructive consequences. While parents may act relatively casual about the distress, their children may be imploding because no one has recognized the impact the discord imposes on them.

When I graduated from college, my father gave me a diamond ring as a present. When my mother saw the ring, she informed me that this ring was her engagement ring that he had claimed had been stolen during the divorce. She wanted the ring back. Here I was, twenty-two, and still right in the middle of their games.

Forty-eight-year-old (age ten at the time of divorce)

Parental discord breaks apart the marriage, the family, and the home. For children, divorce is the dissolution of the family's foundation. Though divorce may be an appropriate "breaking apart" of a dysfunctional marriage, we need to manage this process to protect our children from the minefield of divorce. Otherwise, it can lead to the "breaking apart" of our children. Divorce can fracture children's capacity for identity formation, which may have lasting consequences. In Maya's case, even though she was only an infant when her parents divorced, the reverberations from the event still actively damaged her years later.


Excerpted from Collateral Damage by John T. Chirban. Copyright © 2017 John T. Chirban, PhD, ThD. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Dr. Phil McGraw xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Before You Begin: Your Child and Your Divorce xvii

Part 1 Guiding and Protecting Your Children

Chapter 1 Attune to Your Child 3

Chapter 2 Manage Emotions and Stormy Situations 28

Chapter 3 Sustain Your Parental Role 59

Chapter 4 Provide Stability Through Nurturance 75

Part 2 Navigating Divorce for Parents

Chapter 5 Regain Control-Reclaim Yourself 99

Chapter 6 Realign Your Relationships 122

Chapter 7 Redefine Parenting 143

Chapter 8 Retain Your Parenthood in a Blended Family 161

Chapter 9 Preserve Loving Relationships 180

A Final Word: Redirecting Your Divorce Through Spiritual Life 194

Appendix: The Divorce Study Survey 199

Notes 206

About the Author 211

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